Four Frames – Excalibur (1981)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout June, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘myths’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from John Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.

Sex, violence, betrayal, revenge – these are ingredients of a film producer’s wet dream and the legend of King Arthur has them in spades.

It’s no surprise, then, that Arthur has continued to serve as an influence, direct or otherwise, for countless forms of art and entertainment.

His latest cinematic incarnation is due to hit our big screens in 2017 courtesy of Guy Ritchie. We’ll wait and see what that has to offer, but it’ll have to go a long way to top John Boorman’s deliciously ripe and unashamedly excessive swords and sorcery epic.

Excalibur

After the comedy gold mined by Monty Python And The Holy Grail six years earlier, Boorman took a decidedly left-field turn in bringing the Arthurian legend to life. Based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written more than five centuries earlier, Excalibur presents a warts and all vision of – as the opening titles explain – “The Dark Ages… out of those lost centuries rose a legend. Of the sorcerer Merlin, of the coming of a king, of the sword of power”.

The film’s title is no accident. The ancient weapon (“Forged when the world was young and bird and beast were one with man. And death was but a dream.”) is forever present, forever tied to the land and the one it chooses as ruler.

Before Excalibur selects Arthur (played to perfection by Nigel Terry) as the one to draw it from the stone (amusingly, he’s told off by his adopted father for doing so and told to put it back), we’re shown how it ended up there courtesy of a fatal chain of events set in motion by Uther Pendragon’s lust for the Duke of Cornwall’s wife Igraine.

Excalibur

With the guidance of the mystical necromancer Merlin (Nicol Williamson), Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table usher in a new golden age, while he finds a seemingly perfect mate in the form of Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi). But the sins of the father come back to haunt the king as his embittered half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) nurses plans to use sorcery to destroy both him and his land.

Boorman had long desired to adapt the Arthurian legend, but struggled to raise the money. Intriguingly, an alternative offer to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings to the big screen was made along the way and a number of the set designs for that failed project ended up in Excalibur.

The Arthurian influence on Rings, whilst far from hidden, becomes glaringly pronounced in the context of watching Excalibur, with its talk of fellowships and a single, all-consuming object of power that binds itself to the one who possesses it.

Excalibur

The film is full of starting imagery that, more than 35 years on, still has the power to captivate (amplified by the stirring sounds of Wagner, Orff and original compositions by Trevor Jones). The battle scenes, most notably one towards the end of the film that is shrouded in mist save for a glowing orange sun are richly atmospheric, while the Lady of the Lake’s arm thrusting out of the water wielding a luminescent Excalibur remains a singularly beautiful image.

It is also noteworthy just how many future stars of stage and screen show up, including a still relatively unknown Patrick Stewart as well as Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, both of whom received their screen debuts here.

All are overshadowed, however, by Williamson’s delightful performance as the otherworldly Merlin. No chin stroking sorcerer he, Williamson imbues the character with a mixture of wry witticisms, unnerving unpredictability, paternalism and a resigned sadness for a changing world that is slowly turning its back on the pagan gods of old to make way for the rise of Christianity.

Excalibur

Willaimson’s scenes with the wonderfully over-the-top Mirren are particularly enjoyable; the characters antagonism towards each other being reflected in real life following a troubled production of Macbeth some years earlier.

Excalibur is far from perfect. Its treatment of female characters is crude (Mirren wears a costume that’s akin to what Carrie Fisher wears while chained to Jabba the Hut in Return Of The Jedi, while the less said about the scene involving a convulsing Igraine dancing for a leering group of knights the better) and the Holy Grail section in the final act loses its way badly. The decision to give numerous scenes a soft focus was also presumably made to lend the film a certain timelessness, but only serves to have the opposite effect.

In spite of its occasional flaws, there’s nothing out there quite like Excalibur, and for that reason alone it deserves to be celebrated.

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15 comments

  1. le0pard13 · June 26, 2016

    Still my favorite film of the Arthurian legend. Fine piece, Mark.

  2. Tom · June 26, 2016

    Not one I’ve seen but if it’s got a young Helen Mirren in it (who my mom last saw!) I think I’m game. I’m not usually one for these swords-and-sandals type things but Excalibur has such a rich history/mythology surrounding it that I just can’t help myself. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2016

      Do it mate. It’s big and sometimes overblown, but there’s something about it that really wows you.

  3. vinnieh · June 26, 2016

    I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen this film, but from the visuals here, I think I’d like it.

  4. ruth · June 27, 2016

    Oh I saw this not that long ago because of Helen Mirren and she’s definitely very memorable in this.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28, 2016

      Mirren rocks in this. It was one of her earliest screen credits and she lights up the screen when she’s on. It’s a film full of memorable turns such as hers.

  5. Cindy Bruchman · June 27, 2016

    I LOVE this film! So glad you liked it, too. It has the Game of Thrones feel to it, doesn’t it? Loved the on-site locations, the scene chewing, Helen Mirren, and all the fun a fantasy film can bring.

    • Three Rows Back · August 28, 2016

      Sorry for the very late reply Cindy! I’ve barely had time to get to my blog for the past few months. So glad you love this movie! Even though fantasy is back in fashion, I still doubt we’d get such a film as this these days.

      • Cindy Bruchman · August 29, 2016

        They feel very remote and distant, films today. I rarely get that warm feeling anymore.

  6. Victor De Leon · August 1, 2016

    One of my favorites, Mark! Looks amazing on blu ray. I saw it during it’s initial release in the theaters as a kid. That image of the lady of the lake holding Excalibur was so ingrained in my psyche that I used to doodle that image during class back in high school. Great write up!

    • Three Rows Back · August 28, 2016

      Hey Vic! Thanks for the kind words buddy. The Lady of the Lake sequences are my favourites too. Such evocative images.

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